Interview with Andrew Losowsky

Why did you write a book about doorbells?

The whole thing was an accident. I had just bought a new camera, and wanted to test it out on a brief holiday to visit friends in Florence, Italy. So I took a photo of a particularly ornate doorbell. "That came out well," I thought, and so I took another. A few hours later, I had more than 100 doorbell photos in my camera, and I was thoroughly lost.

I had never really thought about it before, but doorbells reveal a lot about a building and its occupants. In Italy, they also write who is inside - so I'd come across seven Italian names and one Japanese name written on a sticky note. What was that about? On another doorbell, I found only beautifully engraved numbers except for a family living on the top floor. Where had everyone else gone? There was also an amazing variety of styles of doorbells, from plastic cheap buzzers to gleaming metallic pull-knobs and enormous lion's head knockers. It felt like a very zen-like activity. That is, until an old woman came out onto her balcony and yelled at me. At that point, I very un-zenly ran away giggling.

About a year after taking the photos, I returned to them and began to notice more details in the images, and I started to ask more questions about the bells and the buildings' occupants. Stories began to form in my head - and so I wrote them down.

Which was the most fun to write?

I'm fond of them all, in their way. I really enjoyed being able to dabble in different genres, without ever allowing the stories to become too macabre or silly. So one is a mock-horror tale, while another is a strange twist on a detective story.

I particularly enjoyed seeding certain stories with characters from other tales - so if you really wanted to, you could create a web of connections between the inhabitants of this fictional city of Florence.

Cities are genuinely magical places if you look at them right. You never know when a small balloon will release a rainfall of marshmallows above your head, or when a man will recite a poem to a wooden rooster. That's really what the book is all about.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Reading magazines - in my other life, I'm the co-curator of the Colophon independent magazine festival, and something of a magazine expert. Despite all that's going on, print is still thriving if you know where to look for it.

You moved last year from Europe to the USA. How different are the two?

Completely different - the popular cultures, the way things work, the mentality of the people, the history.
Completely identical - people doing remarkable, beautiful things for themselves and each other. Which is what people do, when left to their own devices. I'm just fortunate to get to see some of it, and hopefully to share some of my experiences to help spread the fun I've seen elsewhere.

What are you working on next?

I'm currently working on a project to write about objects in museums, and how they relate to the visitors who look at them. I've started to contact different museums to see if they'd be interested in some form of partnership. There are many more ways to look at objects than appear on a simple caption, you know...

Other than that, I have a non-fiction book in the works, I've just completed a trilogy of plays that I'm hoping will be performed in London next year, and I have a director who wants to turn The Doorbells of Florence into a play as well. I wrote it as a book, and wouldn't know where to start with adapting it, but I can't wait to see how it comes out.

Interview by Hannah Cox, 1st March 2009